What Caring for My Mother Teaches My Children (and Vise Versa)

I’m part of the “Sandwich Generation,” a term that is used to describe those of us who care for their children as well as their aging parents. According to the Pew Research Center, 47% of American adults in their 40s and 50s are raising a young child or children (or financially supporting a child over 18) and have a living parent age 65 or older. Longer life expectancies and delayed childbearing means we baby-boomers experience the emotional, physical, and financial challenges of family caregiving across generations.

Since there’s just no getting around my double-whammy caregiving situation, I (uncharacteristically) try to keep an optimistic attitude and a little sense of humor when I feel pulled in so many directions at once. Caring for children is not all that different from caring for seniors and as care-recipients, they have a lot to learn from each other.

Patience, patience, patience
Are you trying to get out of the house on time? Start an hour early. Trying to decide on which cereal to buy? Be prepared to look at every box. Whatever time you think you need to complete a task, double it. That’s just the way it is. If you as the caregiver begin to show signs of stress and impatience, those in your care will respond with agitation and frustration. Those tasks that seem to take an interminably long time will take even longer. There have been times when I’ve been pushed to my limit, and here’s something interesting — if I raise my voice to my mother, she gets the same look on her face as my children do when I yell at them — and it’s not a good look. I’ve learned to breathe deeply, count to 10 (or 100), smile, and go scream into a pillow.

You can be active without being at a full-run
There’s nothing wrong with watching television or (more in the case of kids than of mom) playing video games. Sometimes we need that passive entertainment. But it’s important to balance those things with mind-engaging activities. Puzzles and games help with logic, thinking, and memory. Meandering strolls in the park not only help with your large motor skills (and I’m there to make sure you don’t fall!), but it gives us the opportunity to get away from all of life’s distractions, look at the world around us, and maybe have some great conversations.

Sometimes you need a little help
There’s no shame in asking for help now and then. It doesn’t mean you are weak or needy, it means that with someone’s help, you can do essential tasks quicker and safer.  Both children and the elderly need help with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) like bathing, dressing, and personal hygiene (I swear if he doesn’t do it more often, I’m going to floss my son’s teeth for him.) I stoop to tie shoes and a climb to reach things that are too high. My children feel no loss of dignity when they realize they need my help, neither should my mother.

There’s nothing that a hug won’t help
Hugs can’t fix everything, but many studies show that there’s a physiological change that occurs when someone gets a supportive touch. Hugs and hand-holding have been shown to help release a person’s oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, known as the “feel good hormones.” Touch has been known to lower blood pressure, lower the risk of heart disease, and alleviate anxieties and fears. And remember, as you are giving, so are you getting. Hugs work both ways.

I don’t know how much longer I will have to care for my mother, and my children will grow up and away from me before I’m ready. Yes, multi-generational caregiving can be exhausting and stressful, but it doesn’t last forever and I need to remind myself of that every day. I’ve chosen the child-rearing, parent-caregiving path (or it chose me) and strength of character is often determined by how one handles challenging situations. And when my “strength of character” threatens to bail (as it does for everyone), babysitters and professional senior caregivers are there to provide respite and help me keep sane.

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